10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 59


Haroun and the Sea of Stories (National) Annie (Victoria Palace) Homage to Love (Drill Hall) The Last Flapper (Man in the Moon)

Mimickry, mime and magic

Sheridan Morley It is perhaps a little ambitious of the pub- lishers of Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, now in its first-ever staging at the National Theatre, to advertise it as 'a children's classic in the tradition of Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz'. In the first place, that kind of classic status usually takes a half-century or more to achieve, and, in the second, these stories are not now, or perhaps ever going to be, as acces- sible to children of all ages. If you know of the fatwa, and of the terrible self-imprison- ment from which Rushdie is still only ten- tatively emerging (there were police guards and metal detectors all around the theatre on the first night), then indeed there is a fearful relevance in the villainous Khattam Shud, arch-enemy of stories, foe of all lan- guage, prince of silence, who has his fol- lowers sew up their own lips.

Clearly and unsurprisingly Rushdie sees the story as both democratic and subver- sive, and storytelling from generation to generation as one of the last great free- doms: even in most prisons, there are still tales to be told. The more you know of his own story, the more heartbreakingly rele- vant his stories become; and (as at the Young Vic on his work with Grimm and Kipling tales) Tim Supple has given them a marvellously inventive staging, with a large- ly Eastern orchestra and actors willing to turn themselves into monsters of all kinds.

Melly Still, who designs and co-devises with Supple, has surrounded her ever-fluid set with an entire library of books, but here, as with the orchestra and the East- West stage games of the players, there are clashes of styles that never quite settle down into a coherent evening. If you could imagine All Baba rewritten by C.S. Lewis, you would have some idea of the weird mix of academic satire and Far-Eastern magical mystery tours that lie at the heart of Haroun's determination to restore his father's lost narrative arts.

An extremely socially and politically aware 12-year-old might just get all this, but even then there are references and tra- ditions here which require rather more careful study and thought than is expected of the usual Christmas treat for children of all ages, preferably on this occasion between about 25 and dead.

As usual, Supple has done some breath- taking stage wizardry on a tight budget, and the wheelchair-bound star Nabil Shaban manages to be as mischievous and endear- ing as ever; the rest of the company, whether fighting off sea monsters or shad- ow-duelling with themselves, are a tribute to the years of Cheek By Jowl and Theatre de Complicite which have finally brought the arts of mime and mimickry and magic back into mainstream theatre.

An extraordinary kind of snobbery now dictates the choice of musicals for stage revival; briefly, anything by Sondheim is politically acceptable, as are the early Rodgers-Hammersteins but only provided you pre-announce your intention to 'redis- cover' them. The King and I is just about permissible still, but God help the manager who tries to revive Flower Drum Song (racially impure), or anything much by Jerry Herman or Julian Slade or Ivor Nov- ello or even Noel Coward, whose centenary we celebrate next year, but probably with- out Bitter Sweet or Operette or even Sail Away. Sometimes, however, one or two of the old shows slip through the net and come up looking amazingly strong still, and one of those, at the Victoria Palace, is Annie.

The lovable moppet with the shocking red hair and the voice of a dwarf Ethel Merman is now celebrating her 21st birth- day in a production by the original lyricist Martin Charnin. America's answer to Oliv- er!, singing orphans, wicked warders and all, has thus far taken $400 million at the international box-office, so who are we to complain? True, the entire score sounds as though it fell off the back of Jerry Her- man's piano, and the lovable little waifs and strays have been so tightly chore- ographed that they now squeak rather than sing.

Annie has always been like being hit over the head by an avalanche of get-well cards, but you can't argue with Franklin D. Roo- sevelt, motherhood or the American flag, even if in a more cynical, Clinton Presiden- cy you might begin to wonder about a cou- ple of very old men falling in love with a little girl who loves only her dog. The whole show is only just this side of an all- singing, all-dancing Lolita, but Lesley Joseph turns in a nicely manic Miss Hanni- gan, playing her somewhere halfway from Dickens's Miss Havisham to the Wicked Witch of the West, and, as for the songs, every one of them would be a showstopper if only someone had written them a show to stop.

And, finally, a couple of solo shows; at the Drill Hall, Elizabeth Mansfield has Homage to Love, an account of Edith Piaf on the night of the 1948 concert when her boxer-lover was killed while flying to see her in New York. Courageously, she sings all but one of a dozen Piaf classics in new translations by Steve Trafford. Within the frame of that one concert it is hard to get across quite enough of the Piaf background for us to care about her understandable distress. Mansfield is a powerful stage spir- it, and at the very least she'll send you back to the original heartbreaking recordings.

'Don't just sit there — do something!' Meanwhile, the Man in the Moon in Chelsea launches an ambitious season of monologues about celebrities with William Luce's The Last Flapper, an account of the doomed Zelda Fitzgerald in a mental home the afternoon before she died there in a mysterious fire. But we are never told of the fire, nor indeed enough else about the golden lady and her relationship with the writer she uncharitably refers to as F. Scotch Fitzgerald on account of their drinking difficulties. Nothing is really fol- lowed through by Luce, so that we end up with Zelda at her most irritating, wittering on about the days when all the world was young and in Paris. Tania Mathias is a good if low-key Zelda lookalike, but has been given precious little to work with, except of course Zelda's own preciosity.